Sunday, 15 June 2008

Religious Logic

Thursday night, the one before last, I was putting my little one to bed and I said, 'Tomorrow, we can listen to music with our breakfast'. The reason why tomorrow and not today or yesterday is that we were just coming out of the mourning period of the 'Sefirah', meaning the counting days. Counting what? you may want to ask. To which the reply is, 'counting the sheaf', which is not a Jewish version of counting sheep though the rules and regulations governing the Sefirah are of no less a soporific effect.

The period of counting starts on the 2nd day of Passover despite that what is actually written in Leviticus is 'from the morrow of the Sabbath'. This being Judaism an argument broke out and Sabbath was taken to mean the 1st day of Passover though not without some dissenters. Anyhow, the counting culminates on day 49 which was last Sunday, a day before the festival of Shevuos (aka Pentecost). Shevuos translates as 'weeks' which kind of makes sense since the count of 49 days equals 7 weeks.

The actual counting takes place every evening after the evening prayers when a blessing is recited praising God for sanctifying us with the commandment of counting the sheaf, and what a benevolent God he must indeed be if for nothing else. Following the blessing amid much fervour, swaying, flailing of arms, waving of clenched fists, eyes screwed up tightly, we count, 'Today is 27 day[s] which are 3 weeks and 6 days to the sheaf', or whatever the number for that day is. The sheaf is a reference to a sacrifice of a sheep and a sheaf that was brought in the temple to celebrate the first harvest.

And now to the soporific bits. Should you forget to count one night you may continue counting but without the blessing since you're missing a number in the middle. According to some opinions on the matter 7 'complete' weeks are required and nothing less will do. You can’t dial your friend with a digit missing from their phone number so why on earth should God defy nature and lift up his receiver if you’re missing a number to Him? Therefore, the proper obligation is not being fulfilled so you can count but not praise God as praising God for sanctifying you with a commandment you are not technically obliged to carry out may be uttering God's name in vain and that is just not on. Sorry mate, wrong number.

I hope drowsiness is not setting in because we haven't yet reached the mourning bit. The Sefirah is also when according to legend the disciples of Rabbi Akiva died en masse some time around the turn of the 2nd century AD. No less than 24,000 of them. Legend is never satisfied with the incident itself and must ascribe causes and effects. So in accordance with legend’s own legendary logical system the cause of the plague was that Rabbi Akiva's disciples didn't treat each other respectfully. Since one of Rabbi Akiva's teachings is the maxim that the biblical prescription to love thy neighbour as thyself is 'a great principle in the Torah' one must conclude that either he wasn't the best of teachers or they weren’t the best of disciples. But let's pass on that one for now.

What I'm getting to is that during the counting period there is nested within it a mourning period for the 24,000. There is plenty of disagreement on when the mourning is to take place but it is generally agreed that it is to last for a period of 33 days within the 49 days. The form of mourning is not to shave or have a haircut, not to hold weddings and not to listen to music.

My little boy had had a haircut on the Thursday prior to the festival when according to some the mourning had come to an end but according to others it hadn't. It was therefore the perfect opportunity to avoid the queues, queues being an essential part of the haircutting experience when three quarters of Stamford Hill descend upon the barbers, pere et fils, to have their hair seen to. And why all at once? Aren't there enough barbers to service the large number of heads? Surely it calls for an indignant editorial in the Hamodia, a front page leader in the Tribune, Buffoon Yitzchok spitting blood and Alex Strom making a feeble attempt at reason that the askonim must get together and arrange for more hair salons in Stamford Hill. We call on the gevirim to line the pockets of the barbers to provide priority to Yidn. Planning laws must be shaken up so that every vacant shop is turned into a barber on erev Shevuos. What is required is an urgent call from the Rabbinate for a team of voluntary hairdressers accompanied by a press release from Rabbi Pinter.

Well, the problem is that apart from a select number of barbers in the Stamford Hill vicinity few barbers know how to cut a Jewish head. I mean rid it of hair of course. Not that Jewish hair grows in a certain way or that the hair has to be circumcised. It is just that like all else we do, we do like to fuss.

Leave the sidelocks, all 10 inches of them; trim the beard but leave it natural at the side; cut the moustache but don't dare touch the beard; zero from forehead to nape of the neck but not a strand of hair off the sidelocks; cut the head on no. 4 but no straight line at the back; straight line but not with a razor; and so on. As any of the Jewish barbers will tell you, whether they be Greek Cypriot, Bangladeshi or Mohican, there is a Jewish way for cutting hair. Get it right and you'll have Stamford Hill on your doorstep 5 times a year negotiating a discount because they keep you in business. Mess up and you'll be decried from Manor House to Seven Sisters.

I might as well let you into a bit of a secret, while I'm at it. If you are minded to go for a Jewish cut, no one, but really no one, knows the rules like George at the Cypriot barbers of Hair by George on Amhurst Park. He will berate you like a rabbi if you want to touch your beard, ask 'what's wrong?' if you want to leave your hair long and beard short, warn you of the consequences of appearing in shul with a straight line under your chin or above your collar, advise on the fine line between thinning your sidelocks and doing away with them altogether. To top it all his chair doubles as a confessional while tending to your instructions. I suppose that should really be called an ecumenical cut.

So there I was with my little one in a ‘Jewish’ barber less than a week before Shevuos but sans the queues. And all thanks to a good Jewish argument. 2 Jews, 3 opinions (and 5 cheesy jokes), as they say. Thursday was still a day early according to the prevailing opinion so the most rigid opinion holders stayed away. Remember this is Stamford Hill where unless it is planning or parking rigidity always wins the day and beats the hell out of the rest. According to this opinion the mourning ends on the first of the 3 days of 'restrictions' which was a day later. The 'restrictions' being not the cutting of hair or the listening of music but not ascending to Mount Sinai or 'approaching' a woman, nudge nudge.

The connection to Mount Sinai is this. According to rabbinical exegesis Shavuot is also the day that God chose his chosen people and handed them the Torah on the Mount. The story is recounted in Exodus where we are told that 3 days prior to the big day, God commanded the Hebrews to restrain themselves from intercourse and not to ascend the mountain. This being the introduction to the festival of Shevuos it was decided that this is where the mourning must end. So although approaching a woman or ascending the mountain is no longer considered prohibited during these days the band can finally strike up and the hair can be shed according to all opinions.

And so I arrive at the point of this post. My boy wanted to know why is it that he could have a haircut on that Thursday but not listen to music until Friday. I shrugged as I felt a bit guilty for his early haircut. I probably also wasn't bothered trying to explain to him all the above especially before bedtime. The kid is only 4.

I am not about to tell you his witty reply to his own question as I am not my sister-in-law and definitely not my neighbour. Their children are just phenomenal. Not that you would suspect anything amiss if you met them, but just listen to their mums whose credibility we have no reason to doubt and you realise that what we are witnessing are an entire bevy of future Groucho Marxs and Albert Einsteins merged into one. Besides, his self reply was not witty at all. All he said was, 'oh, because we may cut our hair today but we may only listen to music tomorrow'. 'Exactly!' I replied marvelling at his precocious grasp of rabbinical epistemology.

He did however get me thinking. I was wondering is it he who has grasped the logic of religion at a tender young age or is the logic of religion such that it makes perfect sense to the mind of a 4 year old as well as to those who retain that mindset into adulthood?

Answers on a postcard please.